Thursday, January 12, 2017

In the City of Bikes

In the City of Bikes: the Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist
© 2013 Pete Jordan
448 pages

"It is quite possible that all the bicycles in the world are not in Amsterdam, but you'll never be able to convince me."  American tourist, 1956

No sooner had Pete Jordan stepped foot outside the Amsterdam airport than did he nearly get run over by a rushing cyclist.  He met his near-miss with utter delight, for that was precisely why he was in Amsterdam. He'd come as a student to the Netherlands, to study urban design and the role of bikes in Dutch culture.   But the student would become something else, as In the City of Bikes documents his first decade as an Amsterdammer, a man whose career, family, and every joy were nurtured by the closely-knit buildings of this bike-and-canal city, where anything can be walked to but everyone rides bikes instead.  For a reader who sees in Amsterdam hope for humane urbanism,  Jordan's work is a delight through and through.

Why are the Dutch so crazy for bikes? It's not a question they'd ask themselves: in a city where over two-thirds of the people use bikes on a daily basis, the elegant little machines are nothing extraordinary. They don't require helmets, lycra, and a man-against-the-world attitude like cyclists in America bring to the saddle.  Cycles fill Amsterdam -- its streets, its sidewalks, its culture.  Early on, Jordan speculates on why the United States and the Netherlands developed so differently in terms of transportation;  he highlights the comparative availability of land, the scale of the American nation, and the abundance of domestic auto manufacturers as key reasons why the United States quickly embraced hordes of automobiles.   Cars only emerged as a serious rival to Dutch bikes in the 1960s, and just as they were provoking serious resistance  from student movements, the nations of OPEC thoughtfully banned oil exports to the Netherlands and bikes made an epic comeback. (This is, I submit, the greatest gift OPEC ever made to humankind.)

In the City of Bikes is essentially a personal approach to Amsterdam and its cycles that mixes in tales of Jordan's first decade of life in Amsterdam with a narrative history of the city and bicycling.  In the late 19th century, bicycling enjoyed intense support as a short-lived fad in places like the United States, but  the elegant machines had more staying power in a place like Europe with human-scale urbanism and close connections between worthwhile places to be. The Netherlands' flatness made it especially easy to cycle, so cyclists' numbers only grew and grew. The cyclists swarmed in such abundance that mayor after mayor despaired of their anarchism; even the Germans, after seizing the Netherlands, were frustrated.  Rule after rule the new overlords posted, and the Dutch ignored them. (Among the objects of Nazi irritation: Dutch cyclists not staying to the right, as well as holding hands and riding two to a bike.  Roads and bicycles are only for transportation, thank you, no joy allowed.) Only when the Nazis began methodically searching and seizing bicycles for use by their own troops did bicycles disappear --  broken down and squirreled away, or tossed into the canal just to spite the greycoats -- with the exception of those so badly maintained that even fleeing Nazi officers couldn't make use of them.

Cycling in Amsterdam is an utterly democratic mode of transportation: every class uses it regularly, and there's  no real relationship between the wealth of the cyclist and the value of the bike. Parliamentarians and bank executives pedaling to work in their $3000 suits often had the same beaten-up wheels as everyone else. This may owe to Amsterdam's intense amount of bike-thievery:   Jordan lost three bikes in his first two years there, and with theft that common there's no point in sinking money into a machine to begin it. (On that note, the black market in bikes is  amusingly perverted; when people have bikes stolen, they simply buy a stolen bike -- which is then stolen again. It's rather like a twisted kind of bike rental.)    Dutch cycling isn't limited to the young and intense: children grow up on bikes, and bike to school on their own accord. The elderly are mobile -- even pregnant women can cycle. Jordan's wife, for instance, transported herself to the hospital to have her baby, and when she left the place a mother, she returned home by bike.   During bicycling's first flare of popularity, Queen Wilhelmina was an ardent cyclist and remained so throughout her life, taking great pleasure in pedaling about incognito.

In the City of Bikes is not a guide to bicycling infrastructure. It's simply a story of humans living well --  Jordan, and the people of Amsterdam as a whole.  It is connected but free, rebellious but highly functional for human needs. If you like the city at its best, or like cycling, or simply have a care for human flourishing, this is a wonderful little book. I loved it before I bought it, I was thoroughly enblissed while reading it, and I already know it's one I will keep remembering with the thought: this is how life should be.


  1. thanks a bunch for this post!! i'm a big bicycle fan - i have three and ride whenever i get a chance... bicycles are one of the very few things that give me hope for the human race... i just ordered the book from Abe and can't wait to read it!!

  2. I'm happy to have shared it! And I echo your feelings about bicycles and hope...this is the first book in my series on 'building toward the future', which will encompass smaller ideas like liberty, progress, and human flourishing. Bicycles are winners in all counts!


Thank you for visiting! Because of some very clever spambots, I've had to start moderating comments more strictly, but they're approved throughout the day.